WASHINGTON (RNS) The leaders of three black Methodist denominations are joining together — for the first time in 45 years — to address unemployment, crime and other problems that disproportionately affect black men.
“`When people talk about us being in an economic downturn, that’s nice talk for the general community, but for the African-American community, we are in depression,” said Senior Bishop John R. Bryant of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
“Our people are hurting. They’re hurting financially and we want to put our heads together and our hearts together to see what we can do to try to ease that kind of pain,” he said.
Bryant’s church, along with the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, are planning a “Great Gathering” for March 1-3 in Columbia, S.C. that is expected to attract thousands of church members.
The meeting, organizers say, will spearhead projects such as minority mentoring programs in local congregations across the country.
It marks the first time in 45 years that the three denominations — with a combined total membership of more than 5 million — have come together in such a concerted way to address social ills affecting African-Americans.
All three churches trace their roots to John Wesley’s Methodist movement, but gradually broke off on their own, mostly because of racism in white Methodist churches. Ten years ago, the United Methodist Church formally apologized to all three denominations.
“Because of the plight that we see now of African-American men, especially as it relates to unemployment — that we believe is directly tied into much of the crime and the incarceration that we find our young men involved in — we believe that it is time for the church to once again come together,” said Senior Bishop George W.C. Walker of the AME Zion Church.
“We believe that as three denominations we can do more than any one single denomination.”
When he was a seminary student more than four decades ago, Walker attended a similar gathering of Methodist leaders in Atlanta, the last time the churches worked together in a concerted way.
“Some of the same social issues that affect us today affected them then,” he said. “There comes a time when we have to renew our commitment, and I believe this is a time of renewal.”
In recent weeks, the three denominations have worked jointly to address earthquake-relief efforts in Haiti; AME Zion Church leaders voted to give half of their Haiti funds to the CME Church, and half to the AME Church, because those two denominations already have ministries in Haiti.
The Rev. Staccato Powell, chair of the summit, said it’s unclear whether the organizations will connect with the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which includes a task force on fatherhood and healthy families.
“We have not ruled out collaborating with them, but we want to insure … the AME, AMEZ and CME communions are the impetus behind this initiative,” said Powell, pastor of Grace AME Zion Church in Raleigh, N.C.
“We strongly believe the impact our collective witness will bring to the issue of African-American males will provide the kind of traction the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) gave to the civil rights movement.”
Organizers have invited President Obama to address the gathering on its concluding day but have not yet learned if he will attend.
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